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Theories of Work and Identity

1552 words (6 pages) Essay in Sociology

11/01/18 Sociology Reference this

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Discuss: Work is a big portion of a person’s life.

To say that work is a big portion of a person’s life is a understatement of large proportions. Children are raised with one or both parents who make it a priority. They are raised to make it a priority. They work virtually all their lives. They retire from it. It can be intrusive and ubiquitous and the fact that it is both a noun and a verb does not begin to hint at the complexity of it.

In beginning to consider it, a nature path would be to define its nature. Is it feathered or scaled, or more accurately, is it to be relegated as a science of economics, sociology or something else entirely? Many regard it as a pure function of applied economics (Block, Berg, & Belman 2004, p. 94). It seems right to regard it as such as at its most basic level it is a about an exchange relationship in which two parties trade something the one owns for something the other owns. Whether this exchange is of time, expertise, property, or ideas is irrelevant. The exchange takes place in a form of a market while both discrete and often not-so-discrete forces are at ‘work’ to set the value of the exchange. These forces, laws of supply and demand, invisible hands and the like seek to maximize the utility of the trade to both parties.

As a consequence of the nature of the relationship being able to be characterized by an ‘exchange’, work can also be considered by a legal or contractual basis. By virtue of this, there are certain very explicit rules that govern the conduct of either party with regard to the fulfillment of their respective duties. Such laws, as for example in the United States, often fall under a Department of Labor and generally includes such standards as a forty-hour work week, harassment and discrimination provisions, minimum pay and pay frequency specifications as well as provisions regarding collective bargaining. The goal of such a perspective is to serve as something of a bridge between not only the economic interests of both parties but the social impact of work to the workers.

In modern world, a typical exchange takes place between the individual and the organization. With this type of exchange, there are a number of additional concerns and issues that become relevant. In the first place there is generally an asymmetry of power in which the owners of capital employ individuals in masse to literally make up the corporate body and to wield profit maximizing power on employees. This imbalance is potentially offset by the previously mentioned ability of certain workers to partake in collective bargaining actions such as the formation of unions that ultimately can help to give the individual worker a larger voice. This power is wielded as a consequence of the corporation’s greater resources to enforce the often contractual nature of the exchange. Also, as corporate budgets generally exceed those of individuals the ration of the loss to the total ‘budget’ is greater. In addition, as a corporation does not have emotions, the consequences of a ‘failed agreement’ are often of significant magnitude to the individual. Though the worth of the individual worker is indeed significant to the corporation for, without him, the corporation would ‘die’, the time horizon of the two parties is vastly different. This idea is eloquently expressed by Adam Smith, “In the long-run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate” (Smith 1976, p.84).

As the nature of work is at least partly economic, to ignore the basic issues of business management would be unpardonable. From Taylor’s beginning of scientific management to the “high performance work systems” of today, the nature of managing the individual worker presents a range of methods devised in order to maximize the economic return of work. While Taylor’s command-and-control methods largely regarded the average laborer as incapable of being able to self-manage, they did nonetheless create vast increases in efficiency and paved the way for the development of very large organizations. Interestingly enough, these techniques, or at least, the implementation, of them has been supplanted by the like’s of Stanford’s Pfeffer is able to rigorously document the superlativity of a complete system of seven key human resource practices that, when fully integrated into an organization produce superior financial returns to the organization. In place of timed work, close supervision and continuous thrusts for greater efficiency through centralized decision-making, consider the characteristics of the ‘modern’ high performance organization (Taylor 1917; Pfeffer 1998, pp. 64-65):

  1. Employment security
  2. Selective hiring
  3. Decentralized decision-making
  4. Comparatively high compensation
  5. Extensive training
  6. Egalitarian work place
  7. Extensive information sharing.

Despite the fundamental economic nature of work, there is another side that, were it go unmentioned, the discussion would utterly fail to consider the other perspective on work: that of the individual employee. Even as an economic premise entirely, the goal of which is to increase the profit and well-being of the individual, the sociological aspects of work merit full consideration (Stiglitz 2002, p. 1).

In consideration of the individual, it is reasonable that one might consider the very contractual nature of work to be akin to that of a “social exchange” process through which individuals and groups of individuals engage in transactions (Dreher & Dougherty 2002, p. 41). These exchanges are clearly governed first by applicable laws and regulations, perhaps secondly by organizational policies and procedures and thirdly and perhaps most notably, they are regulated by the very nature of individuals to ascribe to something that might resemble a common values system. In this system is the seemingly natural component of a sense of “fairness”. This guides innumerable behaviors as the individual inevitably seeks a form of “reciprocal altruism” in which, in addition to following self-serving fulfillment of their own needs, individuals appear to operate on the assumption that there is a bigger picture of morals and the “right thing” involved (Frederick & Wasieleski 2002, pp.284).

An additional consideration of the social nature of work and ensuing issues is the idea that, for many, work is the process by which “identity” is established. Consider the typical introduction at a party or other function… first, one gives their name and then, almost inevitably either their occupation or work relation status to the host (i.e., “I work with Ted”, “I am a client”, etc.). This phenomenon, Social Identity Theory, is quite relevant to the workplace in that it forces one to consider the psychological implications of doing business (Ashforth & Mael 1989, pp. 20-21; Stiglitz 2002, p. 1). Bridging this concept with the representation that work is fundamentally an exchange relationship is the idea of the psychological contract. Just as there are explicit rules governing work expectations, so too are there implicit rules. The rules are communicated by the culture of the firm, the seemingly accepted behaviors of others in a similar position and other verbal and non-verbal queues. The conditions of the contract are primarily mediated by the individual’s manager, the immediate representation of the organization in the mind of the individual (Rousseau 2000, February). Thus, it is through the social processes of work that an individual gains an understand of who they are but also gain particular knowledge of the mutual obligations of the economic exchange.

In summary, work is. It is: what, why, how, when. It is the noun and the verb, the result as well as the process. A discussion of which cannot omit the fundamental economic nature of it yet one cannot ignore the precepts of sociology and psychology woven into every single ‘unit of production’, the individual worker. Any discussion of work which does not give full deliberation the simultaneous dichotomy is to only give half the argument and less than that for the appreciation of what work represents, to the organization, the individual and to society.

Works Consulted

Ashforth, B. & F. Mael. (1989). “Social Identity Theory and the Organization”. Academy of Management Review (14), 1, pp. 20-39.

Block, R., Berg, P. and Belman, D. (2004). “The Economic Dimension of the Employment Relationship”, in Coyle –Shepard, J. Shore, L. Taylor, M. and Tetrick, L., (eds.). The Employment Relationship: Examining Psychological and Contextual Perspectives. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.

Dreher, G. and Dougherty, T. (2002). Human Resource Strategy: A Behavioral Perspective for the General Manager. McGraw-Hill Irwin: Boston, Massachusetts.

Frederick, W. and Wasieleski, D. (2002). “Evolutionary Social Contracts”. Business and Society Review, (107), 3, pp. 283-308.

Pfeffer, J. (1998). The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First. Harvard Business School Press: Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

Rosseau, D. (2000, February). Psychological Contract Inventory Technical Report. Carnegie Mellon University: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA .

Smith, A. (1976). An Inquiry into the Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nation., R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner, eds. Clarendon Press:. Oxford, UK

Stitlitz, J. (2002). “Employment, Social Justice and Societal Well-Being”. International Labour Review, (141), 1-2, pp. 9-29.

Taylor, F. (1911). The Principles of Scientific Management. Harper: New York, New York.

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